When the outdoor silence of twilight is broken by the familiar deep, stuttering “hoot, hrrooot, hoot, hoot” you are again in the presence of North America’s widely ranged Great Horned Owl. This large and extremely adaptable predator was known to early naturalists as the "winged tiger" or "tiger of the air" because of its feathered markings and aggressive hunting prowess. Some folks know this bird as “the hoot owl”.
Of course ‘horned’ owls are not truly horned. They have long ear-like tufts of feathers giving the classic horned appearance. Other keys to their identification are large, thick bodies with broad rounded wings. Overall size is generally compared to a mature red tail hawk. Like most owls in flight the rounded head and short bill cause a blunt-headed silhouette appearance. While overall body feathering varies a general mottled dark gray with reddish brown faces and pale to white patch on the throat are the common markings of this bird.
“Adaptable” and “wide ranged” are terms frequently used to describe this species of Bubo virginianus. Great horned owl habitat includes not only our northern forests but desert regions, swamps, tundra edges, and rainforests both temperate and tropical. That noted adaptability also includes cities, orchards, suburbs, and parks. Several years ago I observed and photographed one in Colville City Park in broad daylight.
Part of the horned owls success is its non-discriminate skill as a hunter as noted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Great Horned Owls have the most diverse diet of all North American raptors. Their prey range in size from tiny rodents and scorpions to hares, skunks, geese, and raptors. They eat mostly mammals and birds—especially rabbits, hares, mice, and American Coots, but also many other species including voles, moles, shrews, rats, gophers, chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, marmots, prairie dogs, bats, skunks, house cats, porcupines, ducks, loons, mergansers, grebes, rails, owls, hawks, crows, ravens, doves, and starlings. They supplement their diet with reptiles, insects, fish, invertebrates, and sometimes carrion. Although they are usually nocturnal hunters, Great Horned Owls sometimes hunt in broad daylight. After spotting their prey from a perch, they pursue it on the wing over woodland edges, meadows, wetlands, open water, or other habitats. They may walk along the ground to stalk small prey around bushes or other obstacles.”
Crows, sometimes the prey of great horn owls, have an interesting tactic when confronted with these predators - they mob them. Often a dozen crows at a time will harass a resting horned owl, for hours at a time. The owls harried response may include hissing, bill clacking, flapping it’s wings and scrapping it’s talons on tree branches.
“Silence on wing,” is a saying regarding this owl covered in extremely soft insulating feathers not only protecting against winter cold but contributes to very quiet pursuit of prey while in flight. Another unique feature of this masterful bird is large eyes with pupils opening widely in the dark, and retinas designed for excellent night vision. Great horned owls eyes don’t move in their sockets, hence their well-known swivel heads capable of more than 180 degrees rotation any direction. They also have sensitive hearing, thanks in part to facial disc feathers that direct sound waves to their ears. Once in the clutch of a great horned owl prey does not stand a chance given the measured grip of these predator’s talons require a force of 28 pounds to open. This deadly grip is used to sever the spine of large prey.
Watch for these owls at dawn and dusk, although if you are lucky one may be spotted in daylight. Listen for their ‘hoots’ to help provide roosting locations. They often hoot in pairs, the male, smaller than the female, has the deeper voice box. Grab a pair of field glasses and go enjoy the golden autumn day…